Conflict Over Clashing Preferences or Moral Transgression?

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She prefers white carpet in the bedroom and he prefers dark brown. This is not a moral issue but a preference issue.

A moral issue is when one of them chooses to steal the carpet from the retailer and demands the other go along with their plan.

As for preferences, God designed us to enjoy differing tastes. I do not like pepper on my eggs and Sarah relishes sprinkling eggs on her mound of pepper! But even though I feel she is strange for liking black flakes or those round little black lumps on her eggs, she would never be immoral for eating pepper. There is no biblical verse that says, “Thou shalt not eat pepper!” And though Sarah believes I am abnormal for not liking pepper on my eggs, since most people do, my preference does not make me immoral.

Differing tastes, opinions, or desires should not rise to the level of a moral transgression. Only if one’s tastes turn cannibalistic, or one’s opinions slander another person on public radio, or one’s desires lead to adultery. Then such preferences cross the line into immorality.

On face value, most preferences are neither right nor wrong. Preferring modern furniture to traditional, private schooling to public, golf to shopping, or California to Michigan is not a choice between good and evil.

What then is my point?

The differing preferences that couples encounter must not be raised to the level of a moral law.

We must not be screaming at each other, “I am right and you are wrong!”

For example, we must be careful when saying “white carpet for the living room is right and brown carpet would be wrong.” No, brown is not wrong, not in a moral sense. Brown is just different. Brown may not be the best choice, but it is not an immoral choice. Said another way, because it is “wrong” to the wife to select brown carpet means brown is unsuitable or undesirable to her. To her, white is the suitable and desirable choice, making it the better choice. However, she must not say that because her choice is the “better choice” that this now makes it the good choice, which means his choice is a bad choice. No, his choice is simply different. Her husband’s preference for brown carpet is not vile.

Doesn’t everybody know this? Theoretically, yes. But practically when two people marry something happens on the way to the carpet store for the fourteenth time, as well as in many other areas of life.

When continually differing over carpet color, school choice, vacation plans, temperature of heating blanket, and other such conflicts, one begins to argue, “I know I am right. Therefore, you have to be wrong. How else can we conclude this when I know I am right about this issue?” But when we tell another person they are wrong, it escalates the conflict to a moral judgment against them. That’s why a mature person says, “Neither of us are wrong; we just have different tastes and opinions on what is best.”

If not careful, good-hearted people can unthinkingly allow the ongoing differences of opinion over opposing preferences to escalate into judgments that sound as though we are telling the other person that they are bad people because we see their decision as wrong. At its worse, we can give off the air that because they have flawed opinions and tastes, they are stupid and even have a flawed character.

Though no one intends to do this, it ends up there unless they backpedal and say, “Look, I have strong feelings about what I think is right about carpet color, but because I feel it is right does not make you wrong. I am not saying you are wrong for your tastes. I just think my tastes on carpet color are more suitable and desirable for our living room, but you are not wrong nor a bad person for differing with me. Many people would probably like brown, as do you.”

One would think that mature people would guard against allowing the clashing of preferences to turn into attacks against the other as a transgressor of what is good. But when we feel strongly about our preferences we can push our agenda in a way that shames the other person into submission, and we do so by making them feel stupid if not immoral.

Does the Bible address this matter? Yes, in Romans 14.

There the apostle Paul teaches the Christ-followers that gray areas exist. Some could eat meat (the Gentiles ate pig), and some could not eat meat (Jews could not eat pig). Some worshipped on this holy day (the Gentiles selected Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead), and others chose another holy day to worship (the Jews continued on Friday night as the beginning of Sabbath). Paul clearly instructed both groups to stop passing judgment on the other as wrong. Neither were wrong. Both had a right to their opinion.

When something is not black or white, we do not declare the other as absolutely wrong, we do not become enemies, and we definitely do not go to war over the difference. Yet, some husbands and wives feel unjustly treated, dishonored, and uncared for during the clashing of preferences. Some end the marriage over chronic differences of opinion. They become enemies. In divorce court they declare war. And nothing immoral ever happened!

Mature people must allow for these differences of opinion and strong preferences that differ without going to war.

A wife wrote, “My husband and I own a company. Our heating bills have been $600 a month this winter and last year. I turned the temperature down last year or the year before. My husband bought a plastic box that fits over the dial complete w/ lock and key. I pay all the bills and many times he doesn't see them. This year when I got our first $600 bill, I turned the heat down two to three degrees to 68. This has always been an area where we don't agree on. He told me last month that he felt I was being disrespectful. I'm trying to figure out how he can say disrespectful. I believe it's more like frugal or conservative. I think with a sweater, this is a fine temperature. Our business is such that sweatshirts and flannel shirts are perfectly okay. . . . In case you're wondering I found a way to change the dial w/o using the key.”

Both the husband and wife are right, and this is why such conflicts drive a wedge between couples. Somehow in our brains we erroneously think, Since we disagree, one of us is wrong, and since I know I am right, my spouse is wrong. In this case the thought process for the wife is, since paying $600 a month on a heating bill is excessive, I know I am right since we can reduce that by lowering the temperature, and especially since all of us can wear sweaters. This isn’t rocket science and my husband should go along with my decision to save money. This is sound business practice. But not only does he resist, he tells me I am disrespectful, which again proves he is wrong since I know I am not being disrespectful but fiscally prudent. And, that he put a plastic case over the gauge with lock and key shows his control-freak mind-set and evidences how right I am in the face of his stubborn, childish, behind-the-back manipulation. Sounds reasonable.

However, may I speculate on why the husband isn’t that concerned about paying $600? He knows he can make that up in one minor business deal, he wants his employees warmly content, he grew up in a home environment with a father who kept him cold as a kid and he swore he’d never do that to anybody, and he feels whenever his wife feels strongly about something she demands she gets her way until she gets it, which feels disrespectful to him. Interestingly, in this instance he decided to hold firm to his position instead of giving in as he always does yet even here she did what she does: found a way to circumvent his decision by accessing the thermostat!

This is a squabble over a personal preference issue related to heat and a heat bill. Personal preferences are not moral matters. Therefore, both can be right. This is nothing more than one person preferring something the other does not, but it does not make one right and the other wrong in a moral sense.

I do not have a quick answer to how to resolve the clash over heating the facility. What I can say is do not square off with each other claiming, “I am absolutely right on this matter and you are absolutely wrong.” No, the two simply have differing preferences when it comes to room temperature.

Many such conflicts arise.

A husband prefers to leave the house in a less than neat way whereas his wife prefers the house to be very clean.

A wife does not mind driving the car on "near empty," whereas the husband prefers to keep it on "near full."

A husband prefers to save discretionary money and a wife prefers to spend discretionary money.

None of these are moral issues but instead are clashes over personal preferences.

Keep the conflict over differing tastes and opinions. Do not make it one in which you claim that your spouse is immoral.

-Dr. E

Discussion Questions

  1. When you feel yourself to be right about a difference of opinion or taste, do you communicate that your spouse is absolutely wrong?

  2. What preference issues have come up in your marriage that escalated to the point of one or both of you claiming the other was wrong? Looking back at it now from a safe distance, where did you go wrong in the issue? How could the conflict have been avoided?

  3. Emerson wrote “careful, good-hearted people can unthinkingly allow the ongoing differences of opinion over opposing preferences to escalate into judgments that sound as though we are telling the other person that they are bad people because we see their decision as wrong.” How have you seen that in your own marriage?

  4. What advice would you offer the wife concerning the conflict over the heating bill? How about the husband? How can you apply this same advice to the way you handle similar situations?